How feasible are Dune's ornothopters?

Originally published at: How feasible are Dune's ornothopters? | Boing Boing


I think the more interesting question is why? Why would we, or why would the fictional society in Dune develop ornithopters?

Our own interest in it seems to mostly be rooted in how heavier than air flight started, a long time ago, in trying to mimic birds. And the very few applications we’ve found for it, are in tiny little drones and remote controlled or wind up toys.

The article only really addresses this with this one line.

There is just no need for this type of aircraft, due to the inefficiency of a flapping wing as opposed to an engine propelled fixed wing aircraft.

What are you getting out of this that we don’t get out of helicopters and fixed wings?


Style :sunglasses:


Hovering, maneuverability, speed, and heavy lifting capability… Those concepts all have different solutions in the real world. Perhaps flappy ships are more versatile in this world?


extremely difficult problems of materials science

That’s what I was thinking when I saw the new Dune.

The dragonfly 'thopters are very well done but the stress on the wing joints must be enormous.

No wonder the wings fell off in the storm


My brain says that the ornothopters make no sense, especially when we see spacecraft able to transit in and out of orbit without any visible means of propulsion. On the other hand, they look freaking awesome so I am ok with it.


This world is predicated on being the far future of our world. The one thing you might say is that as described in Dune, the ornithopters kinda combine the abilities of an airplane and a helicopter. But we’ve also been working on that, and the current workable solution is in tilt rotors and shit. Not ornithopters.

And we just watched wingless aircraft move around just fine, in a society that has enough energy and knowhow to work out interstellar travel.

Just for the sake of bar room discussion I’m wondering if there’s even a reason we still occasionally work on them. Outside of style points. Is there some theoretical point of development where they are more efficient? Are they more efficient for the small things we mostly seem to be working on?


As I recall even the books themselves didn’t explicitly state that the “‘thopters” were actually propelled via flappy wings. I was always given the impression that they were propelled by jet engines but the wings were highly articulated maneuvering surfaces.


Have you ever watched a dragon fly fly? The agility and maneuverability is unlike any man made machine I have ever seen. And they generate this ability using wing structures that are only a tiny fraction of their overall weight.

So in the far future they can reasonably have the materials to reproduce these same characteristics that our current tech is nowhere close to.

Does it seem practical today? Not in the least. But when watching the film Im going to want to believe.

Also, I believe current research into flappers is more collegiate and about materials and design, rather than fulfilling a waiting market.


Yes, but have you ever measured and weighted a dragonfly?

They tend to be much smaller than humans or human compatible aircraft

The cube law is a harsh mistress, one need ever increasing wing surface to generate lift and thrust as the size and weight increase.


We can do it with dragon fly sized objects today. And you can buy remote controlled toys that do that, or bird type flight. It’s not really practical for much. But it is a nice demonstration of what it can physically accomplish.

It doesn’t seem to have a practical benefit over rotors. ETA: as in much of what we were trying to accomplish with mimicking insect flight was accomplished using quadcopters, big central cowl rotors and other stuff you see today on “drones”. Not with Ornithopters.

And just cause the dragon fly is that maneuverable and quick, doesn’t mean it will scale. It seems like that’s the case with Bird flight, it doesn’t really scale up to “put a human in it” sized objects. And nature wise, while birds have evolved dragon fly style flight. Only the teensy ones are doing it.

Sure. But we’re discussing an article about feasibility. Not how rad they were up on screen. Which was pretty rad.

I will say that in the context of other flying machines having no wings, rotors, or visible thrusters the 'thopters wings and jets kinda brought me out of it a little. The “why” question definitely popped into my head more than once.

That is more of a failure of consistency in design though.


But then, of course, Dola and her family would disagree with us…


Right; same reason a whale can’t maneuver like a minnow and a condor can’t maneuver like a hummingbird.


If one can accept giant worms and spice-enhanced starship navigators, then… :nerd_face:


Neither was standing next to a medium sized worm poking at google maps.

So there wasn’t much to create dissonance.

I think that comes later in the series.


Not flapping, but…


That is a tech problem, can be argued about any tech in future sci-fi.
Bottom line is that dragon flies do stuff that I haven’t seen a single machine being capable of. I understand your point better though… if the movie cannot demonstrate the tech as being better than what we have today then it would appear as only a visual coolness. Maybe the flight dynamics and abilities would only truly be appreciated by someone in aeronautic design.

1 Like

Sure! But I don’t get too distracted worrying about material weight and strength in sci-fi, those problems have already been overcome.


I recall Herbert specifically mentioning something about the action of his ornithopters’ wings in one of his later novels. Something about one particular ornithopter’s wings being controlled to a cupped shape (not flapping) prior to taking off via its jets (for lift, I suppose). Since then, I’ve often wondered if Herbert was responding to fans’ own doubts re flapping wing manned flight, and answered with a morphing-only wing. All of this would be an interesting question for his son.

1 Like

Oh please don’t. His son has done enough damage to the Dune series as it is.